(Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the December 1997 issue of Scientific American magazine. We are posting it because of related news.)
Nevada's Black Rock Desert has become a staging ground for the type of event that would have difficulty finding a home anywhere else on the planet. This vast, dry lake bed—a stretch of flatness that seems to extend to infinity—attracts amateur rocketeers who claim to have launched a home-built projectile into space. Aging hippies and computer freaks have taken off their clothes here during the annual Burning Man Festival, which culminates in the torching of a 40-foot-high effigy. But the most extreme act to have occurred in these unending reaches took place in September and October, when British and American drivers launched separate attempts to punch through the sound barrier while keeping four wheels in contact with the Earth.
As of mid-October, this friendly competition had turned into a triumph for the highly regimented British contingent—some of whom had taken leave from jobs in the Royal Air Force to lodge themselves in this dusty corner of the Old West. On October 15, almost exactly 50 years after American Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, the British driver went supersonic in a car. Andy Green, an RAF fighter pilot in his real job, drove Thrust SSC—the 10-ton jetmobile powered by two Rolls-Royce Spey jet engines—to a new land-speed record of 763.035 miles per hour. The sound barrier, which varies with temperature, measured about 750 mph during Green's record-setting runs.
The supersonic milestone broke Green's own record of 714.144 mph, set three weeks before. And Green did so two days after two earlier jaunts down the 13-mile course that also ripped through the sonic barrier, but which missed a record by a minute. To achieve a record, the International Automobile Federation requires two runs through a measured mile in opposite directions within one hour of each other.
During his stay at Black Rock, the tall, iron-confident Oxford graduate–cum–fighter ace had also smashed the previous land-speed record of 633 mph set in 1983 at Black Rock. That earlier mark was held by the man who had recruited Green. Richard Noble had decided against driving the car while devoting himself to the enormous logistical difficulties entailed in building Thrust SSC and financing this private, 30-member British expeditionary force. Noble and Green's labors produced a remarkable spectacle for any visitor to this remote desert outpost. Spectators heard sonic booms and could see evidence of the supersonic shock waves. Buildings were reported to have shaken in Gerlach, a town some 12 miles distant. The neck-craning speed and the cloud of dust shooting from behind the car recalled a guided missile spewing rocket exhaust while traveling in a horizontal trajectory.
The man who had repeatedly risked his life, meanwhile, displayed a dispassionately analytical attitude about the experience of driving a land-hugging car at a velocity higher than any commercial airliner but the Concorde. "It's just like a fast jet, but less maneuverable around corners," Green says of his 110,000-horsepower monster.
The American competitors, headed by Craig Breedlove, the five-time landspeed record holder, fared less well. The team and the sleekly elegant Spirit of America were still recovering from the world's highest-land-speed accident. In the fall of 1996 Breedlove survived when one of the rear wheels of his vehicle left the ground at Black Rock at about 675 mph. The Spirit of America veered into a U-turn that barely missed a spectator's vehicle stationed on the alkaline desert basin, known as a playa.
After the accident, Breedlove and his crew rebuilt the heavily damaged single-engine jet car. But when it arrived at Black Rock in early September, it confronted a series of mechanical problems, including a damaged engine, front-wheel instability, faulty readings from onboard sensors and the need to replace some of the tires and wheels. As of mid-October, the car had reached an unofficial top speed of 636 mph. Still, Breedlove vowed to beat the British eventually.
Appropriately, this head-to-head showdown occurred in a corner of northern Nevada that retains much of its frontier character. The nearest town, Gerlach, is but a few miles from a path, sometimes called the Death Route, that took thousands of settlers across Black Rock's forbidding barrenness on their way to Oregon and California. Today this hamlet of 350 residents, nestled at an altitude of nearly 4,000 feet, has five bars but no grocery store.
By early October, Gerlach's licensed establishments had succumbed thoroughly to the throes of supersonic fever. The Black Rock Salloon [sic]—the main after-hours gathering place for both teams—featured a lighted sign in the parking lot that supplied the highest speed attained by both the Spirit of America and Thrust SSC. And just outside of town on the way to the playa, someone had spray-painted "850," as in miles per hour, over the often ignored 55-mph speed-limit sign.
More than anything, the race to the terrestrial sound barrier showed that this level of record setting can no longer be accomplished by mere tinkerers. Organizing the Thrust team amounted to staging the equivalent of a small-scale military campaign, replete with a huge Russian cargo transport to deliver the car to Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Thrust SSC also proved a technical marvel. It incorporated an active suspension that changed how loads were distributed on the front and rear as it neared Mach 1. And the underside of the machine was fitted with technology adapted from supersonic wind tunnels that prevented shock waves from moving about and causing structural damage to the vehicle.
Funds for the 250,000 gallons of fuel for the Antonov air cargo jet's journey to Nevada came from donations from team supporters, some of whose contributions were solicited on the Internet. One commentator in Gerlach on the changing nature of these events was Art Arfons, who raced against Breedlove on the Bonneville Salt Flats in the 1960s for the title of fastest man on earth. After observing the preparations of the British, the 71-year-old Ohioan, who still resembles a hot rodder in his wraparound sunglasses, could only express amazement. "A backyard mechanic could never do this anymore," Arfons said. "This has turned into a high-tech business."